Foundation in Maine helping Italian farm flourish

WALES, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- In recent years, Maine has seen a resurgence in people interested in where their food comes from, paying a premium for products grown locally in a sustainable manner. Just as that movement has grown, some people in Italy have become more removed from the locally grown market with a surge in popularity of supermarkets.

"Encouraging small, diversified farming in Maine is really important for our future," stated Erin Cinelli, executive director of the Spannocchia Foundation.

Cinelli says preserving our landscape and agricultural heritage through the cultivation of local food improves our economy and our health. To encourage growth in organic farming practices and support educational opportunities on an ancient farm in the Tuscan region of Italy that is run by members of her extended family, she helped form the Spannocchia Foundation in 2002.

"We offer the opportunity to learn about farming, to learn about seasonal eating, local food production and also traditional recipes," she explained.

The foundation supports not just the farm, but interns who immerse themselves in the culture and history of the farm while learning about food production and farming practices.

"Providing the experience to those young people, so that they can learn about farming and about Italian culture and history in the process, and then bring it back with them to where ever they live," explained Cinelli.

Hundreds of interns, including more than fifty with ties to Maine, have made the journey to the 1,100 acre estate to learn more about the traditional methods of wine making, olive oil production, raising and butchering heritage breeds of livestock and organic farming.

Her husband, Ben Slayton, became so inspired by the experience, he worked to find his place in Maine's agriculture community once he returned home.

"Our time in Italy was incredibly formative for what we did next," said Slayton. "I saw the value of doing the processing on top of raising the animals."

He apprenticed at a local butcher shop, and when the opportunity arose, he purchased it, forming Farmer's Gate Market in Wales in 2010.

"What we had set out to do when we came back from Italy was to be part of a growing infrastructure system that supports local agriculture here in Maine, and we wanted to play a significant role in shaping that," he said.

Farmer's Gate Market is a full-scale butcher that works with a network of twenty Maine farms to process the animals they raise, helping fill a void in the local food production community.

The information being shared goes both ways.

"We were able to do a certain amount, bringing a certain amount of American knowledge and practices to Italy, too," stated Russell Stratton, the farm manager at Spannocchia. "We've done it the other way too, bringing some of that Italian experience here to Maine and to the United States of America."

Stratton grew up in Massachusetts, and was managing a wood-working operation when his wife's family farm in Italy fell on hard times.

"It practically was not being operated," said Stratton.

So he moved his family to Italy and began to seek ways to preserve what was once a tenant farming operation, complete with a 12th Century villa on the estate and included several farm houses and barns.

"It was tenant farmed, so the owner was not the farmer really, he was an aristocratic landowner," he explained. While the practice was questionable, ethically, it was sustainable as farmers paid for their land with a percentage of the crops they produced and lived off the rest.

Stratton says they opened their doors to tourists, but realized "the only way we could preserve the landscape was by farming it again."

They began inviting chefs, scholars and students to the property, in hopes of saving the farm and making it sustainable once again.

"It basically preserves that understanding of the history of this place, and provides the food for us and our guests, and preserves the landscape all at the same time," he said.

"We are trying to educate people about more innovate ways of doing organic, natural farming," he added.

In the process, the Spannocchia Foundation and estate in Italy are Increasing understanding about the ways of the past, while promoting the modern, sustainable farming practices of the future.


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